Posted on Wednesday 16 January 2019 by Ulster Business
Ulster Business speaks to Catalyst Inc chief executive Steve Orr about his hugely ambitious plans for growth, expansion and moulding NI into a world-leader in tech
‘We aren’t going to follow anyone else, and we need to return to becoming leaders in the world.’
It’s immediately clear that Steve Orr has big ambitions for Catalyst Inc. He’s just taken over at the helm of the internationally renowned next generation science park which is home to 220 innovative knowledge based companies, who are employing more than 3,000 engineers, researchers, entrepreneurs and executives, across four locations – and has his sights firmly set on making Northern Ireland a leader in two key innovative areas of tech business.
Taking on the role as chief executive of Catalyst from stalwart Professor Norman Apsley OBE, just two months ago, plans are under way to build on the foundations of an organisation which has an estate of 350,000 sq ft of agile workspace filled with innovative companies. Catalyst leads the way in innovation and entrepreneurship by supporting the creation and growth of innovation companies in Northern Ireland.
“We have a rightful place in leading the world. We aren’t going to follow anybody. Let’s get back to leading the world,” Steve tells Ulster Business.
“I am going to take the foundation that Norman left and look at how we leverage that by a significant factor – in terms of economic activity and dynamism for Northern Ireland.
“We need deeper, more strategic partnerships with key institutions. It is through collaboration we can do something to scale and put Northern Ireland on a world map.”
Catalyst is the thriving, beating heart of Northern Ireland’s booming technology sector and leading the way in educating and preparing companies and young people for the changing world of work through the impact of the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution, which is seeing the impact of new technologies impacting on life, work and society.
Formerly known as the Northern Ireland Science Park, Catalyst is an independent not-for-profit organisation operating across the region. It provides agile workspace across four locations – the main site in Belfast’s Titanic Quarter, the Innovation centres in Londonderry, and Ballymena and most recently opened Catalyst Belfast Fintech Hub, a co-working space dedicated to the fintech sector in Belfast city centre, which is a partnership with Danske Bank.
“The business model we have had for the first 17 years was the perfect model for that period. We need a new model for the next. We are identifying a simple, but ambitious strategy – building on the existing foundation.”
Part of the strength of Catalyst is in attracting big international firms, such as Citi, in close proximity to businesses at the very birth of existence. Steve says as a result, “accidental encounters” lead to relationships and outcomes which otherwise, would not have happened.
It also plays host to Queen’s University’s leading research body, ECIT (Institute of Electronics, Communications and Information Technology) which itself is home to CSIT (Centre for Secure Information Technologies).
Some of the leading thinkers based at the site include ECIT’s Professor Maire O’Neill – one of the youngest ever engineering professors at Queen’s, one-time UK Female Inventor of the Year and a leading researcher. “You have US companies looking at why would they want to move to Northern Ireland – they want to meet Professor O’Neill. She’s amazing,” Steve says.
“Then there are cyber companies, like B-Secur. The firm specialises in technology which can read your ECG/heartbeat as a unique biometric identify verification.
“There are other indigenous companies, like Titan IC in cyber-security, Displaynote and ProAxsis. We have great companies that are now making a dent in the world.”
And pushing forward with what his predecessor Norman Apsley built, plans are under way to expand and redevelop Catalyst further still.
That includes another new building, Pierpont 1 – which will provide another 100,000 sq ft of space – and a revamp and refurbishment of Catalyst’s Innovation Centre, as part of an addition £14m investment.
“We want to make this the best place to work – improving the environment, the flow around the campus, the accessibility, and the experience, so that you love being here.
“We want to refresh some of the buildings on the site. The Innovation Centre will be modernised by March and we will freshen-up our identity.”
His big goal is to lead the way in two areas of technology and business at Catalyst – putting Northern Ireland front and centre.
“We want to help to incubate two clusters where Northern Ireland leads the world.
“How do we build on what ECIT is doing? We take the start-up capability, and ecosystem we have in Northern Ireland and leverage that further.
“We want to make it easier for corporations to set up in Belfast and Northern Ireland in order to access amazing research talent. They want to define what the next big breakthrough is.
“We can develop something for global companies that they can’t find elsewhere in the world. We want to create clusters, that will act as a magnet to attract hundreds of companies.”
One of the unique elements of Catalyst is Connect – a network of experienced entrepreneurs, business professionals, top research talent and potential investors who provide their time and experience pro bono to help foster and develop the next generation of entrepreneurs.
“It’s helping entrepreneurs to figure out how to build a company around their product idea and providing the support to validate and access the marketplace, capital, investment and/or talent,” Steve says.
“With the Connect network, we had 820 early stage companies or entrepreneurs engaged in our programmes last year. There is a lot of exciting and vibrant activity going on at the moment.”
And it was Connect, which Steve founded and developed at Catalyst, which first drew him back home to his native Northern Ireland, following years of running and founding tech firms in the West Coast of the US.
“I was an entrepreneur in California for a number of years, in San Francisco and San Diego. I was there for the peak of the dot coms,” he said.
That included his own start-up business, Kineticom, as well as other tech companies. It was his time in San Diego which resonated strongly with Steve.
“Personally, I became obsessed with the San Diego story and the parallels to Northern Ireland. When they started on their journey in 1985, San Diego had a population of 1.8 million people, 60% of their economy was dependent on the public sector. They have an ocean to one side, a mountain range around them and another country to the bottom of them.”
San Diego went from the bottom of every league table to the top – with the collaboration of top universities, research and development and entrepreneurship, building the city into the tech stalwart it is now.
The Connect platform emanated from San Diego – a concept which help shaped the programme in Northern Ireland.
“Meeting Norman Apsley at the Science Park was just the most beautiful thing ever,” Steve says.
The financial and economic impact and contribution that Catalyst has is hard to ignore. It’s estimated the businesses which operate there contribute around £125m in GVA each year.
“Everything we do is based on the simple belief that innovation has the power to transform our economy. People around the world are all innovating quickly, adapting new technologies, artificial intelligence, for example. In Northern Ireland, if people are producing goods and services, but are behind in adopting those new technologies, our economy is going to be in trouble as we will not be competitive.
“The question is, how does innovation become the foundation on which everything is based?”
And as a result of Catalyst’s research into the NI Knowledge Economy, an annual report published later this month, which acknowledges the huge changes to the workplace in the coming year, Catalyst is hosting their second Future of Work summit in May 2019 – aimed at demystifying how roles and traditional jobs are changing, right across the Knowledge Economy sectors.
Of course, Brexit is still on the horizon. For Steve, the main concern is around the availability of talent. “The tech sector is hungry for talent, but with the uncertainty in the last couple of years, fewer people have been willing to consider moving to Northern Ireland. That places a lot of pressure on the existing employees in the sector.”
“Long-term, we have to be optimistic and look at the opportunities which can come out of Brexit. The businesses within the Knowledge Economy are export driven, representing over 35% of all NI exports. With 70% of these exports outside the EU, the Knowledge Economy is the sector least dependent on Europe and should be the key for driving growth at this time of uncertainty.”
So, for Steve, his level of optimism and dynamism is clear in his new role, one which he says he is “very fortunate” to have.
“It’s a position which comes around so rarely, and whoever gets the opportunity is so blessed and fortunate to have the opportunity to lead. We have a talented team of people who are all passionate about what is possible. It’s so exciting. The opportunities and possibilities are endless.”